Alice Neel (c) 1980 Self Portrait National Portrait Gallery

For Alice Neel 1900-1984
(all quotes are hers except where otherwise indicated)

You passed the civil service exam
to support your parents at a time
when women didn’t work
going to night school in painting
determined to be an artist
to reach escape velocity

Lure of the wealthy Cuban artist
his well-mannered promises:
joys of marriage,
intellectual circles, artists, literati,
philosophical vistas all called to you
before the Great Depression converged
the country’s agony paralleled your own

Santillana died, Isabetta removed from your care
prescribed a year in the sanatorium on suicide watch
your daughters lingered in every subsequent interaction
whispered themes of loss at each sitting
made you cry in front of aquariums
even as an old woman standing in the dark
you claimed it intimated your life

Really seeing into the other, each model’s
psyche revealed in a less static form
portraiture never capturing only a moment
but the continuous life of something greater
when they inducted you he said:
‘she probes courageously, almost violently’*
and called yours a difficult art to bear
you believed in the veracity of humanism
sometimes when they left
you ceased to exist, lost somewhere in them

Your sons sought succor in opposing ideologies
unable to face the consequences of bohemian chaos
Richard beaten, unprotected, loved you
Hartley proclaimed his loyalty to you
each caught in ‘blocks of ice’
consumed by corporations in the rise of capitalist fervor

Beautiful, wounded Isabetta
walks out to the seawall
takes the sleeping pills
was it that you were never there?

Feminist icon, they never felt you acculturated to the movement
outrageous behavior claimed psychic space for women
‘I never just paint my pussy; I think that’s absurd,
I mean, to do your pussy over and over, how monotonous.’
a collective gasp as you asserted there’s no difference
between paintings made by either sex

Until the retrospective at the Whitney, validated by the establishment,
‘I always felt…I didn’t have the right to paint.’
there were children to care for, men to uplift
you painted ‘without ingratiation,
without pretty nuances of color and drawing,
but with great validity.’* now the Academy approves
a lifetime membership but you’re already dying of cancer

Precociously out of your time
longing to be a great artist
for recognition from a society
that believed you should be bounded by conformity
all those contradictions, complexity, and sacrifice
your perseverance carried a high price

‘When you’re an artist you’re searching for freedom,
you’re never going to find it
because there isn’t any freedom.
Art could be called the search.’

*From the American Academy of Arts and Letters induction speech

Connected to the Open Link Night prompt at dVerse Poets Pub here: please link up and read some world class poetry.